Corrections or additions?
This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the March
28, 2007 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Something to Keep You Busy Till Book Seven
It may seem like eons until July 21, when the seventh and
purportedly the last, Harry Potter book comes out. In the
meantime Dana Sheridan, the new education and outreach
coordinator for the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton
University, has come up with a way to distract you – at
least for a day. As she pondered the theme for the
library’s first annual hands-on event for children,
Princyclopedia, Harry Potter was the obvious choice.
Sheridan didn’t have to convince anyone of the wisdom of
her selection, and soon volunteers were chasing her down
with offers to run tables at the event. "Harry Potter is
such a rich topic," she says. "You can apply lots of arts,
sciences, and humanities to it, and it’s a very popular
book – with children, teens, and adults; it’s almost
universally known." Then she modestly adds, "And I happen
to look stunning in a wizard hat."
Princyclopedia, a free event, takes place on Saturday,
March 31, at Dillon Gym on the Princeton campus. The bulk
of activities are designed for ages 4 to 14, but Sheridan
assures that it is an all-family event.
When Sheridan came to town, she quickly decided that with
the excellent and diverse programming of the children’s
department of Princeton Public Library, competition was
not the way to go. So she assessed existing children’s
programs – "I wanted to supplement rather than replicate"
– and devised two outreach thrusts for the Cotsen library,
which houses five centuries of children’s literature:
Princyclopedia and a "trunk program" in the schools, based
on the collection.
Princyclopedia grew out of similarly formatted programs
Sheridan already had done – picking a topic or theme and
designing an interactive "convention" or science fair
around it. In Virginia, for example, she coordinated an
event where all the subject matter revolved around the
skies – from skydivers and wind energy to bees, solar
energy, and radio-controlled airplanes.
But for the Cotsen Library Sheridan needed a topic that
meshed with its mission, which includes promoting a love
of literacy and the Cotsen collections. She decided that
each year they would select a book and design an
interactive convention around it, with tables offering
some combination of a demonstration, a hands-on project,
and "something cool to take home." This year the 30 tables
will represent either Hogwarts classes or wizard shops.
(For the whole list, visit
To garner table sponsors Sheridan first approached stores
and university departments, but then, she says, "the event
just exploded." Table sponsors expanded to include
university students and clubs as well as local nonprofits.
Where necessary, Sheridan would suggest how different
groups and organizations could match their own character
to what she was looking for at Princyclopedia, but, she
adds, "some already knew flat out." For example, Whole
Foods knew immediately that they wanted to do Honeydukes,
the sweet shop.
Everyone staffing or volunteering at a Princyclopedia
table must dress in wizard garb, and the first 222 kids
who come dressed in the Hogwarts style will get a special
prize. But if your wizard wear is at the dry cleaners, no
problem – you can make robes and hats at the event, with
the help of the robe shop run by ICI Fashion for Children
and the hat shop run by Red Green Blue.
When participants enter Dillon Gym, which has room for
2,000 Harry wannabes, they will receive a marauder’s map,
like the one Harry uses to find secret passages.
The Arts Council of Princeton will run Ollivanders, where
participants can make their own magic wands, including
spells dripping off the ends.
Princeton Public Library will, naturally, have a wizardry
bookshop – Flourish and Blotts.
The university’s Charter Club will host a display of
ancient runes, with a children’s activity carving runes of
Kathryn Wagner from Princeton’s chemistry department has a
team of 10 students putting together potions. "Potions do
weird things – they change colors, bubble, foam, and
freeze time," says Sheridan. In real life, that’s
chemistry. "The things you can create through mixing
chemicals and looking at different reactions is probably
the closest we can come to doing potions on our own."
Whole Foods will run a sweet store, Honeydukes.
Farrington’s music will provide voice-altering equipment
so kids can see what they might sound like as a troll or
The Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of
Materials will be doing charms, which Sheridan describes
as "magic spells not related to potions." For example,
charms include shields that characters would throw up to
protect themselves, levitation charms, and a bubblehead
charm to enable swimming underwater.
The Raptor Trust is bringing owls from its shelters to do
a live owl show, an allusion to the owls in the Harry
Potter books that serve as "carrier pigeons."
The toy store Jazams will sponsor Weasley’s Wizard
Wheezes, a practical joke shop run by the Weasley twins.
The table will also offer magic tricks. "Nothing is for
sale at the event," Sheridan assures potential visitors.
"It is all free, with no money involved."
Some Princeton students approached her with ideas. One
student-run table will be based on Hogwarts’ Defense
Against the Dark Arts class, but it will stay pretty far
from the darker side of the Harry Potter books and
characters like Snape, Draco Malfoy, and Voldemort. It
will involve "learning about critters and curses with face
paint and stickers that say, `I got hexed today.’" While
the topic may teeter on the mature side, it is essential
to Harry Potter. And since the event is slated for ages 4
to 14, Sheridan says, "I take the responsibility seriously
that parents know they can trust me to have something
appropriate. We keep things like this G-rated." She is
also staying away from sorting kids into different houses
at Hogwarts, because the kind of competitiveness this
breeds can get taken too far.
When she’s not planning Princyclopedia Sheridan is taking
her highly interactive trunk shows to schools within a
10-mile radius of the university. The three 45-minute
trunk programs, for kindergarten through third-grade
classrooms, focus on Beatrix Potter, colonial classrooms,
and detective work.
The colonial program is the most popular, says Sheridan,
who opens with a brief history lesson, using a little map
to show areas of settlement. Then it’s straight to a
schoolroom in the Middle colonies. Sheridan dons her
three-cornered hat and glasses, dressed as a male school
master (there were few women teachers at that time, she
In the trunk she has facsimiles of a copybook from 1776 as
well as colonial writing blanks from the collection (these
are big sheets of paper on which students would put their
best work; many were ornate and illustrated and became
family heirlooms.) Each child receives both a copybook and
a writing blank to take home.
Then Sheridan launches into a typical school day, which
might have included, depending on the location of the
school, writing in a copybook, a blab session (recitation
from a sitting position), and toeing the crack (recitation
standing, with toes lined up on a crack in the schoolroom
Sheridan has already visited about 65 classrooms in her
first year at Cotsen’s.
The Cotsen collection is named for Lloyd Cotsen, a
Princeton alumnus, who donated his collection of
children’s books that spans five centuries and 40
Sheridan grew up in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., where
her father was a naval architect with his own consulting
firm, and her mother was his personal assistant. For
college, her parents encouraged her to follow in her
brother’s footsteps and go to Virginia Tech (that is,
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in
Blacksburg. Of course, her brother wanted to be an
engineer, and she ended up in Interdisciplinary Studies, a
liberal arts degree, with three minors: biology,
psychology, and English.
After college, she worked at "this and that" in Richmond
for two years and then applied to graduate school at the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She started
with a master’s degree focusing on how children learn in
different ways and continued through a doctorate on how
children learn in informal learning environments –
nonschool venues like children’s and traditional museums.
Her research was based at the Virginia Discovery Museum,
where she worked on and off as public programs coordinator
and consultant for several years; she explored how
children learn in children’s museums over repeated visits.
Also while in graduate school, Sheridan developed programs
for other museums and the Park Service and for a year ran
an after-school program for kindergarten through third
grade children at the Charlottesville Catholic School.
After seven years in Charlottesville, she worked for eight
months at a brain injury center, where a friend spied the
Cotsen library job and told her about it. She thought the
job sounded "cool," but worried that they might need a
librarian. "Luckily my hobby is to read children’s and
juvenile fiction," she says, "so I had a pretty good grasp
of the field." The day of Princyclopedia will be the
one-year anniversary of her arrival in Princeton.
Princyclopedia 2007: Harry Potter, Saturday, March 31, 10
a.m. to 3 p.m., Cotsen Children’s Library, Dillon Gym,
Princeton University. Convention-style tables feature
hands-on projects and demos. Prizes for the first 222 kids
dressed in wizard togs. Free admission. Free parking in
Lot 7. For information about handicap access, contact Dana
Sheridan at 609-258-2697 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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